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Our first impression of Mary Claire's was that it would be a perfect spot for a group of ladies to have a light lunch on a summer afternoon. From the cream-colored cafe chairs and tables outside to the sparkly displays of jewelry, puzzles and toys, and a cute selection of useful items folded and decorated to resemble cupcakes and slices of pie, this place has a delicate, feminine air. You'd expect delicate, crustless cucumber and watercress sandwiches to make up the menu.

You'd be wrong.

The food at Mary Claire's is savory and hearty, from the soups and sandwiches to the salads and desserts. Speaking of desserts, they looked amazing, and I'm sorry to say that we neglected to save room for a red velvet cupcake ($3.50 each). The cakes, cupcakes and cookies are the same as those sold at Muscoreil's Bakery and Bistro in North Tonawanda, and there's also an interesting selection of chocolates in festive shapes, not surprising given that the owner's husband is the great-grandson of chocolatier Joseph Fowler.

Well, enough about what we wished we had eaten; here's what we did eat.

Because it was a rainy, cool day when John, Pat, John and I visited for lunch, two of us started with soup. In addition to the usual lobster bisque ($3.25 for a cup, $6.50 for a bowl), there were at least three other choices ($2.50 cup, $5 bowl), including Italian wedding, lemon chicken with rice and vegetarian vegetable. We tried the last two. The lemon chicken had a perfect subtle citrus tang and plenty of chicken; the vegetable soup was richly flavored, with a mushroom broth and plenty of chopped vegetables and coiled pasta shapes. Both were delicious.

The five hearty salads on the menu, four of which were $8.25, sounded intriguing. The only price variation was the classic Caesar, which was $7, $9 with chicken.

We tried the Greek salad, made on a bed of crisp Romaine topped with cucumber, tomato, red onion, kalamata olives and feta. The deep flavor of the olives and the quality feta highlighted this generous salad. The ingredients, cut into bite-sized pieces, were nicely presented, the Greek dressing was nicely herbed and balanced, and the toasted pita wedges added a lot.

There were eight panini and sandwiches, which are all $8.75, with a half-sandwich for $5.75. We tried the special of the day, a simple grilled black forest ham and Swiss sandwich made exceptional by a layer of carmelized onions, soft and flavorful. The sourdough bread on which it was served had toasty grill marks.

The Italian panini was made with black forest ham, Genoa salami, aged provolone, roasted red peppers, green olives and sundried tomato pesto on rosemary focaccia. Every ingredient was flavorful, and together they were exceptional. The sundried tomato pesto was a great touch.

Our final choice, a chicken salad croissant, was served on the largest croissant we had ever seen, easily a third bigger than any normal croissant. The fresh, flaky pastry enclosed a heap of excellent chicken salad studded with toasted almonds, diced celery and dried cranberries.

The sandwiches came with either a side of kettle chips or a small green salad. The chips were ordinary, but the salad was a serving of tender mixed greens. Get the salad.

The combinations of ingredients were so delicious that I would not hesitate to walk into Mary Claire's on any given day and ask them to bring me anything they choose. Maybe I'll do that the next time, when I stop back for that cupcake.

email: aneville@buffnews.com

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MARY CLAIRE'S

3 1/2 pennies (out of four pennies)

"Delicious offerings."

WHERE: 243 Buffalo St., Hamburg (649-8020)

HOURS: Opens daily at 11 a.m.; closes at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 9 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes